Adams and Jefferson on Blade Runner: The Final Cut

blade-runner_55553Blade Runner: The Final Cut The 2007 edition of the 1982 film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford, based upon the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? tells the story of 4 runaway android “Replicants” that are sought after by an agent of the government (Ford) called a Blade Runner. What this agent discovers about the Replicants push him to a deeper understanding of both android and human nature.

The Role of Jefferson and Adams shall be played by CoolPapaE (CPE) and WeMissE (WME). You can judge for yourself who is who, or if they are both just a couple of blowhards.

CPE: 

So I guess we have to start this thing off with the question: Is Ridley Scott a genius?

We really have this film and Alien upon which this idea is built, right? I mean, he’s got other great films…Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and more recently, The Martian. His skill in visual effects is unparalleled. And I definitely think we see it here in the brilliantly stark and spare Final Cut. He allows the atmosphere to be oppressive, but not to the extent that it feels overwhelming. The integration of advertising, American and Asian culture is a sublime vision that seems prescient even today.

This is where the genius ends for me, even in Blade Runner. The fact that he’s released so many versions of the film (including the worst one, called The Director’s Cut) tells me he has no clue how to present a narrative and move it through the story. This one has it closest to perfect, though it still finds some elements lacking.

Trust me, I wanted Ridley to be a better director than he is and for years I ignored the fact that he pumps out 2 average films to each good one. If anything he’s shown us that he is a prolific director, if not quite a genius.

If I am hard pressed to give a Ridley Scott the label of undisputed classic, this begins and ends with Alien, unfortunately.

So how about it, WME, is Ridley a genius?

WME:  I definitely can’t go so far as to drop the “G” word on Ridley.  I agree that he is an amazing visual stylist.    He has directed movies big and small, in a variety of genres.  And looking at his filmography, I would venture to guess that he has made the movies that he wanted to make.  Even most of his misfires are entertaining to a degree.  It took a lot of balls for him to take on Hannibal, knowing how iconic the previous Lecter film was, and knowing he was not going to have the Oscar-winning Jodie Foster reprising her role.  And while it pales in comparison to Silence of the Lambs,  it’s not bad considering the source material.

So if he is not a genius (other than maybe a visual genius), is he an auteur?  The French auteur theory says that the great directors are like authors, leaving an indelible, unmistakable imprint on every film.  Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Capra, Scorsese, Kurosawa, all are considered auteurs.  Does Ridley fit the bill?  Definitely in his sci-fi films, which have such an original vision.  One could almost argue that Alien and Blade Runner laid down a template that was imitated by 80% of the sci-fi movies that came after.

But let’s take a movie like White Squall.  It’s a pretty damn good movie.  But does it have the Ridley touch?  How about a middling thriller like Someone to Watch Over Me?  I’m not sure Ridley can wear the auteur cap either, unless we specify science fiction.

What do you think, CPE?  Auteur, or no?

CPE:

I don’t even know if we can go even that far, when it comes to Ridley Scott. The most accurate representation is that he has made all of the films he wanted to make. In essence, he’s accomplished, but not necessarily distinctive. He lacks the distinctive overall theme, visually, spiritually or even politically. His films lack that scene or imagery that tells us this is Ridley Scott. This is who he is as a director.

Tarantino has the hole in the hand, among other things. John Carpenter has the lens angles, Spielberg bores you to death with his morality. David Fincher has his precise connection with every image that is distinctly his own. What does Scott possess that tells us he’s been the director of a particular film, other than it’s always on time and visually appealing?

Let’s discuss the acting, shall we?  I want to start with the women. For someone who came up with some of the most distinctive heroines of all time (Ripley, Thelma, Louise), we have a very unique situation here. Two uniquely bland actresses put in crucial roles. Daryl Hannah has been pretty bad in several films (The Clan of the Cave Bear, Legal Eagles, Summer Lovers to name very few).  She’s also made some pretty damn good films like Splash, Roxanne, Kill Bill and this one. She is very effective in what could be a throwaway role.

All she really has to be is a psychotic robot to be passable, but she takes it much further. Her nuanced flirtation with Sebastian is a key sequence to the story. It takes some chops to play the damsel in distress and turn it into the role of kidnapper in such a quietly powerful way. Her chemistry with Batty is actually the most convincing romance in the film, and it goes a long way in making the case for Hauer’s beautiful soliloquy in the final act.

On the other hand of the spectrum we have…Sean Young. Poor Sean Young. If ever there was an actress meant to play the straight love interest in comedies, it was her. She is clearly lost as Rachel. She is all over the map emotionally. The irony is, it’s like she is a programmed being that has no programming at all. The interactions between Rachel and Deckard have no heat at all, despite Ford’s best efforts. I got more out of her playing the force-field game with Harold Ramis in Stripes.

Who, then, gets credit for these performances?  Do I congratulate Ridley for Hannah’s Pris? Do I deride him for the wooden Rachel? Ripley has always been Weaver’s creation, in my book. Sarandon and Davis were already established before Thelma & Louise. Scott’s last two heroines in the Alien series were questionable at best.

Am I wrong? Does Ridley have a gift with the women that I don’t see? Or does he just assume they can do their job while he concentrates on other things?

WME:  

When you phrase it that way, I would have to lean towards the latter option.   I don’t think Ridley Scott set out deliberately to be ahead of the curve with strong, iconic female leads.  Rather, we can give him credit for reading the screenplays and not having a problem with the concept of a strong woman, and not trying to change it.  I think maybe Ridley’s vision is story-driven.  If he buys into the story, then he will create a vision that matches it.  So the story of Blade Runner is very male driven.  It is written in the style of a 1940’s noir detective novel, which is all about the male lead on a quest to solve some mystery.  Any women he encounters along the way are meant to be used and discarded. So maybe the roles suit the material.  Although I have never liked Sean Young’s performance in this, or in much else for that matter.  She takes me right out of the story.

Interestingly, Ridley did return to the idea of a kick-ass female lead a few years later with G.I. Jane, with less success.  Was this a deliberate attempt to recapture some of that glory?  After that one, he followed with a lot of purely male-driven films:  Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, Body of Lies.  (Another interesting thing which just occurred to me, all of these movies deal with war, or battle.  Just an observation.)  Of course the slight but charming A Good Year was made in the middle of all that testosterone.  So no, Ridley does not have a special touch with women. He just has a special touch with translating good written material into good visual spectacle.  And Daryl Hannah’s character fits the role she was meant to play.   She did what was asked of her and did it well.

To go back to a point I made earlier, I would like to stay on the story.  The screenplay is deliberately structured like an old noir detective movie.  We have a morally ambiguous anti-hero, searching for someone, encountering a lot of strange characters with questionable motives, and an uncertain ending.  Technically speaking, we have several camera shots that play with light and shadow  These two sentences would also describe perfectly  The Big Sleep.  Instead of Ford tracking down replicants, it’s Bogart tracking down a missing daughter.  I enjoy it when film noir gets transplanted into a different setting, and I think it works here (another common feature of film noir, voiceover narration, was employed in one of the many versions of this film.)

What do you think?  Is the film noir story and style an asset?

CPE:

Oh absolutely film noir works in this environment. If there is one thing that continually seems to be missed about this film it is that it is mainly a noir tale. Most people who steal from this movie get the grit and darkness as just a vision of the future. Was Ridley intending for this to be the audience’s main understanding of the film? If we go back to Alien, perhaps, but it’s not all. Like you say, he is an above average translator of material and he used his understanding that the future did not need to be pristine to advantage. In this Ford is allowed to excel in the primitive man who learns to understand his humanity, in understanding the humanity that exists in the androids as well.

Ridley does the story benefit by not cutting out the more complex themes and dialogue for any sort of brevity or quest for more action. One might be tempted to credit him immensely for this, but one tends to think it may be more a sign of the times in cinema. His record even in his last two Alien universe films makes me wonder if he understands that dialogue can be helpful in building tension.

On the other hand, his well publicized feud with Ford was centered over Scott’s request for Ford to do a voice-over for the film. This would fit with the noir vision of the film, but it’s not entirely clear that either Ford or Scott wanted this for the final product. Ford was clearly the more powerful presence in Hollywood by this point. Ridley was essentially on his third film and still a company man. The real push for the voice over, along with the happy ending, came from the studio’s insistence after seeing test audience feedback.  So really, I don’t blame either for this deviation from typical noir. Both of their instincts seemed to be in the right.

Let’s talk about Harrison Ford. He’s been one of my favorite actors since the first time he ever put on Han Solo’s vest. I could count the number of bad decisions he’s made acting wise on one hand. So, perhaps I am biased. One thing is sure, he’s never been given enough credit for his incredible talent in making action heroism relatable.

When we see Deckard’s reaction to Batty’s words, and the way he notices his own dreams merging with his reality, we are drawn along with him into his realization. Ford uses exaggerated body language at times, but it’s entirely believable because his eyes do not lie. The subtle contemplation happens in an instant and with Ford, it’s definitely not mistaken.

The great thing about Ford in this noir presentation is that he spends no time trying to convince us he is cool. He even shoots a woman in the back, because… well, she is an android and he is a Blade Runner. All of his scenes outside of those with Young give us the look of someone we could be if in that same situation. He never bothers to push for the star treatment, and it makes him a bigger star than the rest.

How about Ford?  Is he overrated or underrated?

WME:

Underrated, for sure.  In a way he reminds me of Henry Fonda.  Of course Fonda didn’t assume the mantle of iconic action heroes, but he had a quiet understated presence that made him believable in every role, regardless of the setting, and I think Harrison Ford shares that quality.  He stays grounded in reality, even when playing characters in extreme situations (e.g. Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan).   And you are spot on when you say he makes action heroism relatable.  He allows all of his characters, even his most heroic, to be vulnerable.  Han Solo gets turned into a TV dinner, Indiana Jones gets captured (multiple times), and many of Ford’s  characters get their ass kicked frequently. When he is in a fight, his reactions are genuine.  Punches land, and he feels them.  You can see his pain, his frustration, his desire to win, to live, to carry on.  Nobody can portray that as well as he can.

I was listening to an interview of Alfred Hitchcock this morning, and he was asked the definition of a good actor.  He said “a good actor is somebody who can do nothing well.” He went on to explain that a good actor maintains a quiet gravitas in the slower moments, and saves his emotion for the scenes that require it.  Actors that over-emote when not required seem emotionally spent by the time they need it most.  I think Harrison is a perfect example of an actor who does nothing well.   (As an aside, I think Tom Hanks fits this definition nicely, as well.  In most of his output anyway.)  Had Hitchcock’s and Ford’s careers had a little more overlap, I think they would have worked well together.

So you talked a bit about the futuristic vision of Ridley Scott, and how not making it pristine worked to his advantage.  We are now only two years away from the time the movie was set, and visually it still works.  I think it was that mix of futuristic technology with dirty streets and unkempt apartments that makes the vision hold up.  If there is one thing that grounds this movie in the 1980’s however, it’s the music.

What do you think?  Does Ridley’s vision of 2019 seem plausible?  And how does the score fit into that vision?

CPE:

The primary reason it works is that for the time, the effects laden shots don’t overwhelm the movie and we’re allowed to concentrate on story. We get one or two spanning shots here and there, and then the story centers on things that have changed more slightly as we go into the bowels of the beast that is modern-day Los Angeles. Thankfully, this is before every film had to take a couple of precious lines from a story in order to moralize about climate change. They more took for granted that people were clever enough to figure the “humans messed up” part for themselves.

The mixture of cultures is probably the most effective thing we see. Ford is nonplussed by any of it and nothing looks special, even from the overwhelming advertisements everywhere. One thing that works in most cultures today is advertising. Communication down to its simplest form. Like emojis. We should have the sequel to the Emoji movie out by the time we actually hit 2019. That is depressing as any amount incessant rain in this film. The idea that messaging gets so big and so easy to push out is as significant as any message in the film. Humanity is losing out when going big and blaring is our best idea.

I found an ironic similarity with this when looking into the streets of Coruscant in Star Wars Attack of the Clones. Lucas had so lost his focus by that point, he thought that giving us cleaned up images of better films (like Blade Runner) would count as character for one of the biggest, blandest films of all time. No amount of window dressing could hide the horrible script (and oh, the dialogue) written in two weeks to placate the imaging he already had ready.

That is Blade Runner‘s future to a “T”:

Glitz and glamour in the sky, same old crap underneath. All the while trying to protect that garbage existence from a superior idea (a.i.) that just want’s to co-exist on an equal plane.

Tyrellbuilding

That said, there are some funny element to the filmmaker’s vision of the future, particularly the triangular buildings (like Tyrell’s) with the outer wall. What the hell is that about, anyway?  One has to wonder what it must be like for the folks who have a room on the inner side of the outer layer. Or the outer side of the inner layer. What kind of view do they have?  What purpose does that shape have, other than aesthetics, and the aesthetics are horrible. Could you imaging paying any amount to have a room with a window and realize you were looking at slanted metal all day? Is the building all just for Tyrell, which would be a waste? Or does he rent the myriad rooms out to a bunch of suckers?

 

There are much better uses for buildings though. One of which I am sure you would find familiar. We’ve seen the Bradbury building a lot, haven’t we?

Bradbury_Building,_interior,_ironwork

WME:  I love your comments on the pyramid building, which looks so cool but does not seem very practical.   And the comparison to Coruscant, and its digital sheen that had absolutely no character.

As far as the Bradbury building goes, yes, it has been seen in dozens of movies and TV shows over the years.  If anyone has a free hour to burn while in LA, it is worth a visit.  The outside of the building is dull, boring brick.  Inside, it is an architectural masterpiece, full of intricate ornamental iron work, marble and terra cotta.  All bathed in light from the large natural skylight in the roof, much as you see in the picture above. Of course it looked nothing like this in the movie.  Ridley made it dark, full of shadows, dripping water, and echoing footfalls, which all suits the noir aesthetic perfectly.  And part of his overall vision for the film, to take something pristine and dirty it up.

Speaking of pristine, the keyboard sound of Vangelis has an electronic sheen to it.   Do you think the music helps or hinders the film?

CPE:

If there is one thing that firmly dates this film in the 80’s it would have to be any sort of soundtrack with synthesizer on it. Even though it is firmly entrenched in its time, there is an ethereal quality to it that is accessible at the very least. A bonus for those who have the soundtrack are actual soundbites out of the film, including Batty’s incredibly stirring final speech.

I never did comprehend the appeal to Vangelis’ work overall. He sure hit the mark for a lot of people, though.

I don’t recall his music ever lining the collection on your wall. If I am wrong, please correct me. If not, then I suppose this is as good a place as any to end our discussion.

WME:

You are correct, good sir, I have no Vangelis in my collection.  Although I was not aware that the soundtrack has dialogue from the film.  I believe our discourse on this film has reached its conclusion.  It has been rather illuminating. And with that, kind sir, I bid you good day.

CPE:

As I bid good day to you.

 

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